Contemplative Engagement Part 5

Shifting from the Individual to the System

In the wider field of engaged Buddhism, one of the core impetuses for Buddhists to become involved in social issues has been the perception that Buddhism is inward looking and unconcerned with social justice, especially in comparison with the Abrahamic faiths. This is a long discussion that involves looking at karma as the impersonal force of justice for Buddhists rather than an anthropomorphic God that intervenes to decide on matters.[1] However, even convert Buddhists in the West who come from Abrahamic religious traditions are accused of being more interested in the personal transformation that occurs on their meditation cushion than the social transformation that occurs from activism and engagement in society. One criticism of the recent mindfulness boom in the U.S. is that it has been delinked from Buddhist ethics and used by corporations and other profit oriented groups to enhance their own productivity.[2]

In the contemplative care movement, we have seen how the dedication to inner transformation has made Buddhists particularly adept at the core competency of chaplaincy—being present with others in suffering. However, our research has shown Buddhist training curriculums may be comparatively weaker in the wider work of systems care and engagement with the system around the patients and their loved ones—usually being a medical or public funded care institution. This was the experience we found at Naropa University. As their program had grown out of the Contemplative Psychology and Comparative Religious Programs, they found the program was lacking in the areas of ethics, social analysis, and diversity issues. These areas usually involve advocacy work by the chaplain in dealing with institutional and structural systems. In this way, they brought in five chaplaincy experts to assess the program, including Rev. Daijaku Kinst, Director of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS), and representatives from the Harvard Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary. The result was a major revision of their Master of Divinity program to better address nine key points of the ACPE curriculum.

This type of research and focus on the role of the chaplain in the system is one of the specialties of the John Hopkins Department of Spiritual Care & Chaplaincy. They design specific studies to measure the positive impact of chaplains on the health institution, such as: 1) the ways chaplains save a hospital costs by facilitating patients to move out of intensive care and into hospice or palliative care, 2) increased customer (patient and family) satisfaction, and 3) less burnout among medical staff, especially nurses. The department has created a Medical Religious Partners program, reaching out to religious leaders in the community who are not CPE chaplains yet exert a stronger influence than doctors on patient’s medical choices concerning intensive care and end of life care. At Johns Hopkins Hospital, chaplains also are working more and more in ethics and on ethical committees for difficult cases. They have a highly developed system of a consult team and a committee that meets once a month. The consult team, with the chaplain at the center, is always working inside the units with the medical team and the patients and families, often times around communications problems.

Rev. Jin with Dean Matt Weiner
Rev. Jin with Dean Matt Weiner

As Buddhist contemplative care continues to grow, it begins to connect with another important stream in American Buddhism, engaged Buddhism. The two would appear to offer ideal complements to each other: engaged Buddhism pushing “contemplative care” beyond the realm of meditation and personal counseling into the realm of structural violence and social transformation; contemplative care providing a more disciplined and compassionate grounding to the hyper-vigilant social activist. Matthew Weiner, Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University who develops programs for students combining meditation and social justice, explains this latter issue:

At Princeton, there are very few social activists, and the ones you meet often have a big attitude. They tend to be very angry and hard to talk to. I talked to one of my engaged Buddhist students who agreed with me about this problem. We proposed a question to ask such activist students, “What if your identity was ‘friend’, instead of ‘activist’?” The purpose was to see if it could help change their perspective and understand where listening and self-reflection fits into activism. I discovered a term at the very beginning of the Buddha’s Discourse on Loving Kindness (Metta Sutta) called suvaco, which means “someone who is easy to talk to”. It is a quality the Buddha recommends as one of the things to be cultivated. I think this means that part of opening the heart means not just declaring, “I am a loving person,” but actually being easy to talk to. This relates to the practice of deep listening that one develops in meditation practice. The art of shamatha-vipassana is deep listening, to yourself, watching and listening to your own mind. You are basically doing chaplaincy on yourself. So I see doing engaged Buddhism as a form of doing chaplaincy.

Muslim prayer room at Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University
Muslim prayer room at Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

In this way, Dean Weiner not only acts like a traditional chaplain offering counsel to students in crisis, but also has expanded his role through the programs he co-creates with interested students. One of these roles is to act more like a mentor or an “elder friend” than as a chaplain. This is not a horizontal relationship as it would be with a friend of the same age, yet it is different from other relationships with elders, like parents or professors. This kind of relationship, which mirrors the Buddhist archetype of “spiritual friend” (kalyanamitra), can be extremely important when students have complicated personal problems, such as homosexuality, they feel uncomfortable addressing with a chaplain from their own tradition.

Another role is supporting students to value and build human relationships. Dean Weiner explains that most Princeton students have been valued all their lives for their individual success and their competitive fire, yet these skills retard their interpersonal ones. Thus, he emphasizes to his students when making a program together that making friends during the process is as or more important than the successful result of the program. A final role of Dean Weiner’s is vocational development in connecting students to alternative career paths in NGO work and even engaged Buddhism. As an Executive Committee member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) based in Bangkok, Dean Weiner introduces students to a very different world of social entrepreneurs and spiritual activists. He is presently developing summer internships for students to work in engaged Buddhists groups in various parts of Asia.

Buddhist meditation room at Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University
Buddhist meditation room at Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

One of these alternative career paths that Dean Weiner exposed to students at a weeklong meditation and social justice retreat held in March 2015 was the work of Detective Jeff Thompson of the New York City Police Department. Detective Thompson is a New York native from Queens. He was raised Catholic but became intrigued by the Tibetan non-violent resistance to the Chinese occupation and the teachings of the Dalai Lama. He also discovered and began practicing the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the principal figures in both the mindfulness boom in the West and the growing interest in engaged Buddhism around the world. Detective Thompson considers himself “basically a practicing Buddhist but I try to be non-denominational. As the Dalai Lama said, ‘My religion is kindness.’” After serving as a policeman in fields ranging from one-on-one interpersonal dialogue over disputes to high scale protest, he decided to go outside the police department to get formal training as a mediator at the New York Peace Institute.

Detective Thompson now designs and runs programs on conflict crisis communication training. He explains that:

Our job is to de-escalate the conflict. Communication can be as or more effective than the weapons I am carrying. We developed skills for talking with suicidal people about to jump off a building, but then we thought why can’t police use these same skills with people on the street who resist arrest but are not being violent. We took this model used for hostage crises and trained all our police officers in it to use on their regular patrols. I also taught every single recruit in the academy twice. These were one-day trainings. I teach all over the country at police academies. We have a three-step model for this work:

  1. Communication: involves the 80-20 principle of 80% listening and 20% speaking. Such “active listening” not only creates a connection but helps to gather information, which is critical in police work. From this basis, one can then –>
  2. Negotiate: While understanding the other person is important, police also have shorter term goals, which are to resolve the conflict at hand and ensure public safety. Therefore, police must negotiate and work towards the goal of –>
  3. Voluntary Compliance: This is the ultimate goal and involves the act of self-determination by the person in the street. This is what good police accomplish every day.
Detective Jeff Thompson
Detective Jeff Thompson

In summation, the concept of “active listening” is to build rapport and develop trust with another person, while at the same time gathering information for the purpose of helping this person. This means to jointly explore their options about what they can do so that ultimately they make their own choice. It is the opposite of telling people what to do.

Detective Thompson explains that: “With each step, you are slowing the process down, which helps to de-escalate the conflict. Two important points in this work are: to ask open-ended questions and to label emotions, which is something Thich Nhat Hanh teaches to do with anger. As police, we want to act with mindfulness and compassion, or in non-Buddhist terms, with awareness.” Detective Thompson uses role-play work frequently in his training programs, since it is essential that the officers learn how to do it themselves. He emphasizes to them that it is very important how calm and at peace they are inside themselves.

From this work, Detective Thompson has developed further interest in researching about the ways nonverbal communication and emotional contagion have an effect in conflict resolution. For his present Ph.D. research, he has developed an acronym in called METTA, which is the term for “loving kindness” in Buddhism. He explains that it is basically a mnemonic device to help people and officers remember their nonverbal communication habits:

M – movement: gestures, facial expressions, body language

E – environment: when, where, time, who speaks?

T – touch: 1) greeting, shaking hands, appropriateness, first impressions, 2) “leakage”, which means how one expresses anxiety and stress through fidgeting, tapping, playing with jewelry, etc. This shows a person’s deeper inner feeling over what they are saying.

T – tone: shows intention, like the way we even use gestures while on the phone because it helps to influence tone and guide others. That is our role: to simply guide others.

A – appearance: our dress, being mindful of other people’s perceptions of you

For the last three years, Detective Thompson has also worked in the press unit of the police department trying to educate the public that police are actually interested and focused on community building and not just using violent force. His work comes at an intensely critical time in the U.S. with the numerous police related deaths of Afro American men and a severe backlash against patrol officers and police departments. Detective Thompson’s use of the inner realms of mindfulness practice in conflict resolution and the outer realms of social engagement bringing this practice to New York City’s police force is an especially powerful example of the Buddhist chaplain and engaged Buddhist as one.

We witnessed an equally powerful example of such work on the very opposite side of Detective Thompson’s world at our visit with the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland. The Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) was founded in 2001 by two brothers Ali and Atman Smith, together with Andres Gonzalez, whom they met at the University of Maryland as students. The Smith brothers were raised by parents of the hippie generation and grew up being taught yoga and meditation. After moving back to their old neighborhood in urban Baltimore, they noticed the marked deterioration of community. Thus, together with Gonzalez, they founded HLF based on the goal of “nurturing the wellness of children and adults in underserved communities. Through a comprehensive approach which helps children develop their inner lives through yoga, mindfulness, and self-care, HLF demonstrates deep commitment to learning, community, and stewardship of the environment.”[3]

yoga at Holistic Life Foundation's summer camp
yoga at Holistic Life Foundation’s summer camp

Their work began in 2002 as an after school program, called Holistic Me, at the Windsor Hills Elementary School, and then hosted at the Druid Hill YMCA for seven years. Now the HLF after school program is facilitated at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. The school is in the heart of the region of Baltimore that experienced “rioting” and violent responses to Baltimore police in May 2015 in the wake of the death of a young African-American named Freddie Gray through police abuse and negligence in a routine arrest. In an area of Baltimore that has been rife with poverty, drugs, and gang warfare for decades, HLF works with some of the most at risk young children in the United States. Their program at Robert Coleman serves 58 male and female students from pre-kindergarten through the end of primary school. They explain that it includes tutoring and homework assistance, fitness and sports fundamentals training, yoga and mindfulness programs, environmental advocacy and education, and other activities such as creative writing, art, music, and civic engagement. This summer vacation they began their first day camps for children at the school.

Among their expanding number of programs, they have developed a Mindful Moment Program, which includes the 346 students at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School and approximately 1,300 students at Patterson Park High School. The Smith brothers and Gonzalez have created their own definition of mindfulness in doing this work:

Mindfulness is the combination of awareness, centering, and being present. It is the awareness of your thoughts, emotions, actions, and energy. It is the ability to get centered and stay centered in all situations. And it is the ability to be present, not letting internal and external distractions take you from the current moment. This leads to the development of empathy, compassion, love, balance, and harmony.[4]

In the Mindful Moment program, they explain that students begin and close the school day with fifteen minutes of mindfulness practice. Students also have the opportunity to self-refer to a Mindful Moment Room, or teachers may send distressed or disruptive students there for individual assistance with emotional self-regulation. The room is staffed by HLF Workforce Development participants, some of whom are graduates of the Holistic Me afterschool program. Some of the documented effects of the program have been: suspensions at Patterson Park for fighting dropped from 49 in the 2012-2013 school year to 23 in the 2013-2014 school year; the number of 9th graders being promoted to the 10th grade increased from 45% in the 2012-2013 school year to 64% in the 2013-2014 school year.[5]

The Holistic Life Foundation offers us perhaps the most clear and compelling example of combining “contemplative care”, chaplaincy, and engaged Buddhism into one comprehensive program. It also marks yet another extremely important stage in the development of Buddhism in the United States. As we have noted, the mindfulness movement has been criticized for lacking a sense of social ethics and justice. The mindfulness movement along with the entire Buddhist movement in the U.S. has also been criticized for catering to upper middle class Caucasians, who have the time and money to attend meditation retreats often held at idyllic, rural retreat centers. The Buddhist message of the renunciation of desire and leading a simpler material life has understandably not resonated with the under class, who have very little to renounce nor find materialistic simplicity in poverty ridden areas very appealing. HLF, however, has used the fundamental Buddhist approach of confronting suffering to identify the needs of their community and adapt practices to that environment. Watching children in a hot sweaty summer gym at Robert Coleman engage in a lively conversation with their mentors on how their mindfulness practice helps them deal with the people in their environment, we saw “contemplative care” being practiced in ways we had not imagined.

Go to: Part 6: Conclusion: Lessons and Challenges for Japan


[1] Watts, Jonathan S., ed. Rethinking Karma: The Dharma of Social Justice. 2nd Edition. Bangkok: International Network of Engaged Buddhists, 2014.

[2] Purser, Ron & Loy, David R. “Beyond McMindfulness”. Huffington Post. July 1, 2013.

[3] Holistic Life Foundation:

[4] Holistic Life Foundation:

[5] Holistic Life Foundation:

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